2018 ~ It Was a Good One
A racing season is a lot like a painting. Although you can admire certain aspects of it while it's still in progress, the full beauty of it can't be truly appreciated until the project is completed. Now that we're a week beyond the 2018 NASCAR season, let's take a look at all the beauty within.
The season started with bold brush strokes at Daytona. It looked like Aric Almirola would win his first Daytona 500 and his first race with Stewart-Haas. That wasn't meant to be of course, as he crashed and Austin Dillon took his first 500 victory. Controversy ensued as fans debated whether Dillon did what he had to do for the win or if it was a dirty move. Many believed (hoped?) it was a sign that Richard Childress Racing would once again be a force on the track. What an interesting twist that the results of that race were a reversal of how the season would progress for those two. Almirola would consistently run up front while Dillon continued to struggle. Hopes were also high for many when Bubba Wallace finished second. Everything looks good in February, doesn't it?
Then Kevin Harvick ripped off three in a row and questions were already being asked if we might be witnessing an historic season from the 4 team. Martin Truex, Jr. won next, which wasn't a surprise, then Clint Bowyer ended his long winless drought. For many, that really served noticed that SHR was going to show speed in more than just the 4 car.
After the early Harvick run, then two different drivers winning, it was Kyle Busch's turn to take three consecutive wins. Media and fans alike began to wonder if we were going to witness a Harvick/Busch battle all the way through to Homestead.
Joey Logano won at Talladega in April. Then and now it's hard to believe we didn't see a Penske Ford take the checkers first again until September. The questions beginning to build by then were, when will Jimmie Johnson turn things around and when will Kyle Larson start winning? Even in the chill of winter it seems unfathomable that neither of those things happened.
The Chicago race in July spoiled one of Larson's best opportunities to win but it also gave us an incredibly thrilling finish. He and Kyle Busch battled each other in the closing laps, each forcing the other into the wall before Busch escaped with the win. It was so good, in fact, that Larson said it was fun even though he lost.
We didn't see a first time winner emerge until the July race at Daytona when Eric Jones won the Coke Zero Sugar 400. Typing the name of that race reminds me of how simple, sweet and appropriate Firecracker 400 is for that race's name. With that win by Jones, the wonder became louder about if or when Chase Elliott would ever win.
Truex, Harvick and Busch would win the next three, further cementing the talk of the "Big 3." Harvick's win came at Loudon and provided another thrilling finish as he ran down Kyle Busch, gave the 18 car the bump and run and picked up win number six for the year. Meanwhile, pre-race inspection continued to become part of the weekly talk. Some liked to blame the new optical scanning system while others could only shake their heads at the fact that teams with multiple engineers consistently failed to get a car through inspection while many smaller teams seemed to have no issue.
Chase Elliott notched his first career win at Watkins Glen on what might prove to be a monumental day for the sport. He not only won, he battled Martin Truex for 20 laps at the road course and kept fans on the edge of their seats. As big as that story was, it was overshadowed later in the evening when NASCAR Chairman and CEO Brian France was arrested for DUI and unlawful possession of OxyContin pills. As embarrassing as that was for the sport, it's hoped that in time it will lead to a permanent change in leadership that so many both inside and outside the garage have been clamoring for.
We saw yet another awesome finish at Indianapolis a few weeks later. Denny Hamlin looked like he'd take the win but after a late-race caution, Brad Keselowski finally found victory lane when he chased down Hamlin. That would be the first of three in a row for the Penske driver and would cause folks to question if now we weren't seeing the emergence of the "Big 4."
Just when it seemed as if everyone could figure out how the season would play out, another brush stroke would be added, giving more layers and depth to the season that was maturing. That was evident at Charlotte in the debut of the Roval. There was a lot of concern going into that race about what the result would be. In one of the season's highlights, Jimmie Johnson put it all on the line in a desperate attempt to win for the first time in a year. His resulting spin also took Truex out of the lead and allowed Ryan Blaney to sneak in for the win. It was a memorable finish, gaining Johnson the respect of so many who never pictured him as a risk taker and also giving fans much to talk about in a positive way. The biggest positive is the fact that it cemented the Roval into NASCAR's schedule going forward.
That wouldn't be the only time Truex was part of a fantastic finish and came away empty handed. The short track at Martinsville saw him battle Joey Logano in one of the most talked about and electric few hundred feet of racing that we've seen in years. After racing each other for several laps, Truex took the white flag. Coming off of turn four for the last time, Logano bumped the 78 and went on to win. Thrilling some and infuriating others, it guaranteed Logano a chance to run for the title at Homestead.
Although Harvick won at Texas the next week, post-race inspection issues meant the win wouldn't advance him to the Championship Four. Suddenly the idea that a driver with the season he'd had wouldn't have a shot at Homestead became a big question. He of course did advance, as did Logano from the week before, Kyle Busch, who won the next week at Phoenix and Truex.
Joey Logano turned the talk of the Big 3 into, "The Big 3 and me." Of the four drivers with a shot in the final race, the 22 driver was the only one that didn't have a series championship under his belt. He does now, of course. With a power move to the outside of Truex, Joey Logano didn't just win, he earned his first NASCAR championship in spectacular fashion.
Stepping back from the picture the season painted, it really does look beautiful. Dominant drivers, first time winners, fantastic finishes, a great championship battle, 2018 had it all. Yes, there were some negatives but even the best artists probably feel they could have improved their finest work. The incredible story of Furniture Row Racing has come to an end, as have the driving careers of some longtime mainstays on the circuit. NASCAR needed a good season for a lot of reasons. They got it. As we look back and admire what was created and now placed into history, I'm excited. There's a blank canvas before us and just beyond winter, the first new brushstrokes will be laid across it at Daytona.